February 26, 2024

The performance improvement process gave me PTSD

  • A former HR employee at Amazon put employees on a performance improvement plan known as Pivot.
  • Then the HR staffer, who said they developed PTSD from work, was put on their own PIP.
  • An Amazon spokesperson said the account contains inaccuracies about the company’s practices.

This as told essay is based on a conversation with a former Amazon HR employee who was inducted into the company’s performance management program known as Pivot. This person spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid jeopardizing his career. Business Insider verified their identity and employment with the company. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

I worked at Amazon in HR for several years. Not only did I administer Pivots, but I was eventually made aware that I would be going through one.

They made a mistake by doing that to me. There wasn’t much information to justify a poor performance.

The Pivot goal was a straight, across the board 6%. And as an HR professional, that is a significant figure.

And there was a lot of work by the HR VPs to show the metrics – daily, weekly – to make sure we knew who was in the pipeline. Not to improve, but who is in the pipeline to get out. There wasn’t much interest in improving people.

Maybe you cut a good choice with the fat. And they were okay with that. They wanted that song. The managers who had to implement it and tell their people they were on Pivot – I’d say the majority of them hated it. Because, first of all, they didn’t have the skills to manage performance so quickly. Many of our managers were brand new.

The first thing you need to do is work with a Pivot consultant. So that was someone from HR, next to the manager’s business partner. And you would talk about whether it’s the right time, whether it’s the wrong time to turn someone around.

I’d say 80% of my time was focused on Pivot in some way. Either the Pivot appeal, or the Pivot work that employee managers had to do. And look, I’m not going to say you’ll ever find this locked up in words somewhere. But the idea is that if you put someone in Pivot, you make it so damn hard that they can’t get out.

Almost always, unless there was a truly unique set of situations where it came up on appeal, the success rate of that was virtually zero.

When I wasn’t working on Pivots, working in HR was great. The idea was that we would do coaching, focus on strengths and focus on moving people through the organization in a positive way.

Later, when Pivot came back, we had put all our employees on the pile. The way we broke it down, we called it the highest level, which was, you know, maybe 15-20% by the time we got to it. And then you had the middle. And then you have the bottom level. The lower end was around 20-25%, maybe even up to 30%. The guidance they publicly expressed may be different, because we’ve always worked to make sure we have more than that, because some went bad – or went off the rails and we couldn’t figure it out for whatever reason.

We were way over the number of people who were actually underperforming or hurting the business. Maybe about 1%, 1.5 to 2% actually didn’t perform well.

I have PTSD

I was disgusted by what I saw with the Pivot process. This process alone has given me PTSD. It had such an impact on me as a person that I had to leave there.

If it was justified, it was easier to push someone out. If it’s earned, there’s no problem. But if it wasn’t deserved, you had people crying and pleading and they couldn’t understand it.

You had visa-sponsored workers who, once we converted and moved them, were no longer authorized to work in the United States. So they had to immediately make plans to leave the country. And it’s a long process to get sponsored by another group.

In the years I was there I never had a performance problem – not even anything remotely serious. I wasn’t worried because I was constantly asking for feedback. I’m like, “What can I do? How can I do it better?” I never wanted to be blindsided by Pivot myself. And what a lot of people did – when they got the indication that they were going in that direction – was they immediately transferred jobs. Some people had success. A lot of people weren’t.

Normally in a performance improvement program as an HR person you follow a progressive discipline. Do you see any notes that this person is having problems? Do you see coaching conversations taking place? So if it were actually just – boom – that’s really problematic.

It was my turn

During my performance review, when it was clear I was on a PIP, my manager shared criticisms I had never heard before. I said, “I’ve never gotten one of these comments before.” Basically it was a lot of made up stuff. I mean, you could put some truth in it. I was late on a few assignments. But everyone has a number of things that he or she can improve in their work. My manager just chose to bring it out.

Amazon divided people into three categories. You were either top tier, middle of the pack, or at least effective.

Normally they don’t tell you how they rate you and I say, “Come on. I know this stuff as well as you do. I know the wording. You didn’t put me in the middle category. Would you like that?” Just admit that you put me in the least effective category?” And I got my manager to admit it.

I wasn’t put on Pivot. My manager wanted to work with me a little to see if I would commit to the job. So they sat me down and said I could go on Pivot and leave right away or they would work with me. Since I clearly had no job prospects, I said, “Look, I’m in. Let’s try to get better and go from there.” So my manager took away all my direct reports, put me in a little box and said you can do this and try to work your way out of it.

Immediately afterwards I started making every effort to find another job. And so I started interviewing. There was even a headhunter who contacted me. Originally I told her no, but then some of these things happened. And I’m like, “Okay, let’s look at it again.” I got to the point where they offered me a job and I quit. But I had a huge stock investment planned. So there was no way I was going to rock the boat in any way just to get to this date.

If you walked away during the Pivot or at any point before you had your investment before it was there for you, you would lose everything. And I’m not talking about a little money. I mean, a couple hundred thousand dollars came to me.

I played along and I can play along well if I have to. So then the money is in my account. The next day I called my manager and told them I was resigning. They blew a gasket – definitely a gasket, because I told them I was in it for the long haul. I said, “Look, you gave me no choice. You’re putting this threat against me. I’m not going to sit around and wait for it to depend on you. You can make the call whether I do it or not.” “My manager was super angry and asked me when I was leaving. I said two weeks. They were in disbelief that I didn’t give them more respect.

The biggest thing – and I’m going to say this is true for a lot of people who were put on Pivot – is that there were no warning signs. There was no hint of communication saying, “You’re underperforming.” I mean, even if it’s something as simple as, “Hey, can you do this better next time?” I know, for sure, I’ve gotten zero negative feedback. I got the feedback that I was rocking it. And then all of a sudden, when you’re in this place, you’re like, “Huh.”

I still wonder what happened to all the people who went through that process. How has it affected their lives? I think this leads to a lot of psychological problems.

Margaret Callahan, a spokesperson for Amazon, told BI via email:
“Like most companies, we have a performance management process that helps our managers determine who on their team is performing well and who may need more support. For the small number of employees who are underperforming, we use performance management programs to help them improve, and many employees do just that. Sometimes the programs result in employees leaving the company. Business Insider declined to share the information needed to verify this person’s account, but it contains some inaccuracies about our performance management process. An unverified, anonymous anecdote in a Business Insider ‘As told’ essay does not reflect the experience of the vast majority of our employees.”

Do you have something to say about what you see in your workplace? Insider wants to hear from you. Email our workplace team from a non-work device at thegrind@businessinsider.com with your story or ask for one of our reporter’s Signal Numbers. Or check out Business Insider’s resource guide for tips on sharing information safely.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *